‘Brush Up Your Sondheim!’, London (2012)

Rupert and his Company co-star Cassidy Janson helped run an acting workshop for the Sondheim Society’s summer school titled ‘Brush Up Your Sondheim!‘.

Julie was lucky enough to attend, and has written the following account of her day.

The Stephen Sondheim Society Summer School 2012

The Stephen Sondheim Society ran a two–day summer school in July, which featured talks, panels, master classes, workshops, and a puzzle–based treasure hunt. I attended on the Sunday, partly because – well, to be honest, only because Rupert Young was running one of the acting–and–music workshops. But I had a wonderful day, and based on the buzz about the previous day (in particular, the master classes with Jeremy Sams), I was sorry I hadn’t been able to attend the whole thing.

The event was held at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and was attended by a number of music students as well as by Society members and members of the public.

This was the first summer school for the Society, but there was general agreement that it mustn’t be the last. And everyone was very friendly and welcoming even to a Sondheim novice like me, so I would definitely recommend any Sondheim initiates pencilling this into their To Do List for 2013.

A Musical Director’s Perspective | Gareth Valentine

The first talk of the day was by musical director Gareth Valentine – and I swear he said he was born in Llanuwchllyn on the River Dee, which of course we Merlin Locations Geeks know from Colin and Bradley’s road trip in The Real Merlin and Arthur. It’s a small world. Gareth provoked much laughter with his story about how as a young fellow he’d been really disgruntled to come second when singing in an Eisteddfod… until some while later when he realised that Bryn Terfel had come third!

Getting onto the serious stuff, though. Gareth talked about how when casting for Sondheim, he always considers acting ability the most important factor. Even though the songs are difficult, and most people would assume he’s looking for good singers, he’s firstly looking for good actors. Musical theatre is about the lyric, the text.

Once you have your cast, then the only way to coach them in learning the songs is to ‘drill it, drill it, drill it until they’re sick of it, and then drill it some more’. He’s had actors in tears, but he persists. Gareth quoted the saying that amateurs rehearse until they get it right; professionals rehearse until they can’t get it wrong. Having made a fierce impression with all that, however, Gareth also spoke about making sure his actors feel secure, and about always being there for them on the night, in case any help or support is needed. So maybe he’s not so very scary after all.

Gareth went on to talk about how the number of players in the orchestra or band for musical theatre has shrunk significantly, and how this dismays him. Bands should include 20 or 30 players – ideally 30 – but are now often reduced to nine. The complexity of the orchestrations has to reduce accordingly. Also, instead of conducting, the musical director is now sitting at an electronic keyboard, hidden behind a wall, and unable to interact with the cast except via the inexact medium of a monitor. The musical director has lost effective control, and can no longer offer either praise or help to the actors. Gareth concluded that this was a disaster, and has compromised the quality of shows by half.

Gareth is also concerned that it has been too long since a star was created by musical theatre; he cites Elaine Paige as the last one. Producers therefore draft in celebrity stars from other walks of life, often with poor results – and the general public isn’t discerning enough to know the difference. [Julie notes that obviously this doesn’t apply to Rupert!]

Gareth offered the following advice to the music students:

  • Remember that casting isn’t only about talent but also the directors asking themselves, ‘Can I work with this person for weeks…?’
  • Be prepared. Have three good strong songs you can do.
  • Approach everything with intellectual integrity. Think (for yourself!) about the lyric, the scene. What’s its function? What does it mean to the character?
  • Sondheim himself would be happy to change the key of a song to suit the singer, so don’t be afraid to ask for such things.
  • Always stay on the beat, stay with the music – which runs on like a train. (Don’t get left behind!)
  • Lots of the characterisation is in the music, and not just in the lyrics. Sondheim means everything he does; nothing is gratuitous. Study the music as well as the text.

The organiser and chair, Peter Auker, asked Gareth what his Top Ten musicals would be. These included more than one from Sondheim, of course, but I’ll make special mention of Company seeing as that’s the one I know best, thanks to Rupert!

Sondheim on Film | Dr Olaf Jubin

Dr Olaf Jubin, a Senior Lecturer in Media Studies and Musical Theatre, talked about the various films that have been made of Sondheim’s musicals. He said that Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007) is the only one Sondheim says he’s completely happy with.

Despite Sondheim being a film buff, going back to childhood visits to the cinema, he has an ambivalent relationship with films made from his own work. This might not be so surprising when he’s quoted as saying he likes all films – except for film musicals! Apparently Sondheim feels that film lends itself to more realistic or naturalistic matter, while theatre can be more flexible. Olaf disagreed with most of the points Sondheim has made.

Olaf thinks well of the film West Side Story (Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, 1961). Apparently the show itself hadn’t been overly successful at first in the theatre, but the film is what got it noticed, and helped turn it into a popular and respected hit. Conversely, Olaf thinks less well of Sweeney Todd, feeling it suffered from being cut back to two hours.

Certainly no one seems to think well of A Little Night Music (Harold Prince, 1977)… Olaf played some scenes for us, critiquing as he went – and I found over lunch that even the few (the very few!) saving graces that Olaf identified weren’t seen in a positive light by other Sondheim fans. So that film seems pretty much written off!

There was special mention of Company again, as Olaf concluded that it could be the Sondheim musical that would translate best to screen.

Workshop | Trevor Defferd, Cassidy Janson, and Rupert Young

During the afternoon we split into three groups. One group stayed on to work with Stuart Pedlar and Michael Strassen on a scene from Sondheim’s Assassins. Another group headed upstairs to work with Trevor Defferd, Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young on a scene from Merrily We Roll Along. The third group went to a pub – though the justification for this revolved around finding and solving clues in a treasure hunt (apparently Sondheim is a fan of puzzles of all kinds).

I am sure you realise which group I tagged along with! I mean to say. Not only Rupert, but his co–star from Company, Cassidy, who played Amy so spectacularly and appealingly.

I soon realised that the group consisted of music students – and I didn’t even know the songs, so I claimed a back seat and watched.

The scene involved some dialogue as well as a sequence of songs: Good Thing Going, The Blob – Part 4, and Transition 5. The initial song is performed by the (fictional) composers, Charley and Frank, at a social gathering. It’s relatively straightforward – but then it’s reprised in a scene in which the party guests start talking (well, singing!) amongst themselves, and there’s always two or three things going on at once. This segues into a flashback to 1961. (If you’re confused at this point, that might be my fault. I’m not at all familiar with this show!)

Trevor was on the piano for the duration. He began by leading the group in a series of physical stretches, and then warm–ups for their voices. Trevor then took the whole group into the song Good Thing Going, building it in sections.

Rupert cast the solo parts from those volunteering, and had the group read through the script.

Then Trevor led the way again, building the song The Blob – Part 4, with the various parts being sung by the soloists as well as other group members. The acting was already being layered in on the second go at each section. Trevor likened it to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. He suggested the reprise of Good Thing Going should be beautiful, like a swan on a river, while the increasingly oblivious party guests undermined it with their bitchy gossip.

Rupert was supporting, and offering ideas, but it was Trevor’s responsibility to help the group block out the song. (Cassidy had been delayed, but arrived during this initial process.)

Trevor offered advice such as how individuals, while singing in an ensemble, could take a breath in their own time, while the ensemble continued on.

The group was ready for their first full run–through of the sequence of songs after 45 minutes, which Rupert said was amazingly fast. After a second run–through, he praised their great work.

Now Cassidy and Rupert took the lead in starting to ‘stage’ and really act out the scene. It lent itself neatly to Charley and Frank and the others in their small group performing by the piano while Trevor played, with two groups of party guests arranged on either side.

Early on, one of the young men playing Charley missed his cue coming in, and apologised, asking to start again. Rupert turned this into an interesting note, saying that would actually be a perfect way to express Charley’s ambivalence about performing at this party. While they didn’t end up playing it exactly like that, this all fed into the mix, and became part of how the scene was portrayed. I don’t know if it stayed in, but at one point Trevor added in another bar to the intro, as the (fictional) pianist covered for Charley being reluctant to start.

As they worked through the scene bit by bit, they added in little actions and reactions as they went, some coming from the individual cast members, and many from Cassidy and Rupert. Rupert had already suggested American accents, and the cast happily went for it! There was some conversation about the context for the various characters, and they began to work in some movement that made use of the space available and helped convey the story.

The mix of volume between the different groups singing at the same time seemed to instinctively find its own balance as the group kept working. Cassidy spoke about the actors ‘shaping’ their performance to the front and the audience, even while reacting to colleagues beside them. Rupert suggested they contrast all the busy–ness of The Blob with an ‘eerie’ stillness in the Transition.

I have to say, it was awesome to see it all build up and up as everyone worked together to flesh out the initial ‘sing–through’ and transform it into a real scene. And not only was the final full run–through rather marvellous, but everyone was disciplined enough to finish on time to go get a cup of coffee before we all met up for the final session!

Rupert said he was impressed by the thought that was obvious behind what everyone was singing. Trevor said he was impressed by the collective sense of rhythm, and how quickly the group had developed the scene. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he exhorted them, ‘and act your socks off!’

Performance and Plenary

The three groups met up again, and the Assassins and Merrily scenes were performed before an admiring audience. Alas, the treasure hunt was unsuccessful and the prize remained unfound. But maybe in 2013 we’ll manage to track it down…

See you all then!


Professional photographer David Ovenden was on hand to take photographs, and the Sondheim Society has kindly agreed to me including the ones of Rupert in this report.

Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop - photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop – photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop - photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop – photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop - photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop – photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop - photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop – photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop - photo by David Ovenden
Cassidy Janson and Rupert Young leading a workshop – photo by David Ovenden

You can see more photos from the weekend here. All rights remain, of course, with the Sondheim Society and David Ovenden.


2 thoughts on “‘Brush Up Your Sondheim!’, London (2012)”

  1. Thanks so much for the fascinating report. As a huge Sondheim (and Rupert) fan I really appreciated the detail that you went into.

    I don’t think it was you getting confused about “Merrily We Roll Along” as it is a confusing musical which moves backwards in time with the end at the beginning so to speak!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Kathy! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the report. :-)

      And thank you also for the reassurance. If I ever see that musical performed, I’ll have to make sure I’m fully briefed beforehand! :-D As with all Sondheim, though, the tunes are still with me, all these weeks later. He sure knew how to write a catchy hook!

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